This is the next blog in the continuing series of interviews with top-echelon and renowned professionals. In this blog, I interview Atul Varde: Senior Vice President and Chief Information Officer Affinity Credit Union. Due to his recognized standing, Atul is an invited speaker to the World CIO Forum (WCF—November 1 to 4). I will also be at the WCF and it will be good to see Atul in November. I encourage IT professionals, managers and executives to register and participate.
Atul Varde is currently Senior Vice-President and Chief Information Officer at Affinity Credit Union. With over 108,000 member-owners, 44 branches and an innovative governance structure that ensures grassroots connectedness, Affinity is one of the largest and fastest-growing co-operative financial institutions in Canada. Mr. Varde provides strategic technology management and innovation leadership to the organization, and is responsible for ensuring that IT investments possess an appropriate risk-return profile while being aligned with the overall business strategy. Due to his recognized leadership standing, Atul is an invited speaker at the World CIO Forum (WCF) November 1-4 2011.
Prior to his current position, Atul founded and managed a successful IT company that specializes in financial data processing, software development and information systems consulting. In addition to financial services, his overall IT career has covered an eclectic mix of domains including nuclear engineering, post-secondary education and healthcare.
An engineer by training, Atul has a Master’s Degree in Electrical Engineering from the University of Saskatchewan, with continuing professional education in corporate finance, project management, intellectual property law, and strategic management from the University of California, Berkeley - Extension Division and from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Atul holds the I.S.P. and ITCP professional designations from the Canadian Information Processing Society and serves on the Board of CIPS-Saskatchewan.
To listen to the interview, click on this MP3 file link
Interview Time Index (MM:SS) and Topic
Atul, can you profile your multiple domain history prior to your current role?
"....It's an eclectic collection of domains, but the underlying theme in this is really the versatility of IT. You can use IT as a tool to solve problems in very different domains....Nurture your creative areas, it's a win-win situation...."
Can you now talk about the three valuable lessons that you wish to share from these roles?
"....Nurture your creative areas - it's a win-win in terms of both professional development and adding business value....There's a reason why it is still so difficult to turn software development into a predictable industrial process. Software development is probably the hardest thing to be done as a civilization....It's important to keep learning about new people, processes and technology because I've noticed that innovation is often a matter of making new connections among these objects...."
Can you profile Affinity Credit Union and how you will achieve your mission and goals?
"....From a technology perspective our objective is to provide anytime/anywhere financial services to our members that are both convenient and secure. To that extent we're making investments in internet banking and mobile banking and also in security...."
You wear two hats at Affinity, as an overall business senior VP and then as CIO. How do these roles complement each other? What are the areas of conflict, if any?
"....Wearing those two hats actually ensures a better alignment between business goals and technological efforts. I do believe that technology should be a means to an end and not an end in itself...."
Some in the audience would like the career opportunity to be invited to boards and senior-level management. What does it mean to be part of the executive committee for Affinity and for CIPS?
"....At some risk of over-simplification, I think it means always keeping the bigger picture in mind, then making sure that your individual project efforts all add up to furthering your strategic goals...."
What are your separate recommendations to VPs and to CIOs for organizational and personal success?
"....I don't think I've been in this role long enough to make any recommendations to that particular audience, but I can certainly talk about what has worked for me. Oftentimes the business side of the organization speaks a very different language from the IT side. I think a lot of things risk at being lost in the translation, so as a CIO I often have to be the translator and doing this with integrity so there is trust on both sides...."
What are the major attributes for success in computing based upon your experiences at Affinity and from your history in computing?
"....I think you have to make an effort to understand business processes and speak the language of business....Security is everyone's responsibility, it's not just an IT function....In an environment of constant change, the effective documentation of work processes lowers risk and improves productivity....You have to spend the time to create a learning network by reaching out to colleagues in other divisions, to peers in other organizations, to partners, academics, even students, customers and just other interesting people from other walks of life...."
You recently became a founding executive for a new organization of large credit unions. What prompted the founding, what do you hope to accomplish, and how will you do this?
"....It's essentially a consultative group made up of the CIOs of the largest credit unions in Canada. The idea is to pool our efforts and to share best practices...."
In your current role, what are your top challenges and top opportunities?
"....Opportunities: Diversification will bring new opportunities to leverage technologies....Mobile banking is clearly a big opportunity....From an internal efficiency point of view, back office process automation....Challenges: Keeping up with customer expectations in the technology space in a cost effective manner....Finding enough people who are creative, competent and committed....Speaking from a system design viewpoint, striking the right trade-off between security and convenience...."
If we could take a broader perspective (I'm sure there will be some overlap), what are the top challenges and top opportunities in the Financial Services industry?
"....Opportunities: Mobile banking and mobile payments and all the innovation that's happening in that space....Diversification opportunities....As wealth transfers from one generation to the next, that will create a lot of wealth management opportunities for our industry....Challenges: We are seeing a commoditization of core banking services because technology is a big levelling influence....It's a challenge for a financial institution to differentiate itself and to position itself as having something different from its competitors....Increasing fixed costs for things like regulatory compliance. IT can play a big role in managing those costs....Security is a challenge and it means that we have to be agile and effective in our response to it...."
What specific technologies should business and IT executives be embracing today, in two years and five years?
"....You'll see a recurring theme here....Mobile banking and mobile payment systems....The whole notion of cloud computing (appropriately configured)...."
Can you forecast job trends this year and next?
"....I can't imagine any economy where there isn't a high demand for people who are creative, competent and committed to professionalism....If you manage to hit that spot in terms of that combination, there will always be a high demand for people with that skill profile...."
What are your current projects and what one lesson can you share from each of your major projects?
"....Enhancing our internet banking platform and also on mobile banking....It's striking the right trade-off between security and convenience....Enterprise Content Management....I think a detailed process analysis is key to really maximizing the return on that investment...."
Why would you recommend people get involved with the Canadian Information Processing Society (CIPS)?
"....It's an excellent forum to align our individual career interests with the public good. I think society benefits when IT professionals innovate via collaboration by promoting certification and standardization and adhering to a code of ethics. In that scenario it's a win-win. It makes a lot of sense for every IT practitioner to be involved with CIPS and become a member and be an active member...."
What special CIPS activities do you wish to profile and why should the IT community get involved?
"....As a practitioner look into the I.S.P. and/or the ITCP designations....With both of those designations you get a lot of credibility with employers...."
Please make predictions for the future, their implications, and how we can best prepare?
"....I'll say this, as we get more connected I'm hoping we'll understand each other better and along the way, consciously or unconsciously, cherry pick best practices from each other and somehow over the long term become more reliant on each other...."
Why should IT executives attend the IFIP World CIO Forum or WCF? [Editor’s note: For more information go to: www.worldcioforum.com; Call for papers; WCF news in the IFIP Newsletter].
"....To listen and to learn....To share and to form new connections on a global scale....I do think in spite of our many differences, for the most part, we are really trying to solve the same problems...."
Can you profile your expected outcomes from your talk at the WCF?
"....Pretty much what I said before. I would add to that to exchange ideas and to explore new partnerships in terms of how to solve the problems on our "to do" list faster, cheaper, better...."
What are your thoughts on computing as a recognized profession like medicine and law, with demonstrated professional development, adherence to a code of ethics, and recognized credentials? [See www.ipthree.org and the Global Industry Council, http://www.ipthree.org/about-ip3/global-advisory-council]
"....We all seem to agree that doctors should be licensed. Then you look at the impact of diagnostic imaging technology and bioinformatics say on healthcare in the last few decades and these advances as you know are largely tech-driven. The question I would pose is "Shouldn't the IT professionals behind these advances be recognized in the same way as well"...."
If you were conducting this interview, what questions would you ask, and then what would be your answers?
"....Why did you leave India, many years ago?....Why did you move to Saskatchewan and why did you stay there?....Why did you choose a career in IT?...."